A Playhouse Parent

By Sara Vigneri

As a kid, I detested theatre. I remember a class trip to see My Fair Lady and thinking that I would rather be in math class than endure the play. Until not long ago, I still thought that going to see a show was about as exciting as attending someone else’s high school graduation. But somehow, I have managed to raise two daughters who are completely addicted to theatre. They began performing in community theatre a few months ago and are completely hooked.

Through this entry into the world of community theatre I have come across some fascinating adults who spend their free time, and often their money, performing onstage while juggling jobs and families. Many have developed a love for theatre since they were my children’s age, when they had plenty of free time to devote to singing and acting. But now, as grown-ups, their passion for theatre has not died down despite the rigors and responsibilities of adult life.

Take Stan Zukowski from Emmaus who recently appeared in Civic Theatre’s A Christmas Carol as Ebenezer Scrooge. He also holds down a job as the vice president and co-founder of Altitude Marketing and is married with kids. “I first got involved in theatre in high school, was in every production and then majored in theatre in college,” he explains. “For a while in my twenties I had my own children’s touring company in Indianapolis.” But now, he squeezes in time on the stage with work and family. “While I’m working 20-25 hours a week for 5-6 weeks at rehearsal, on top of 50 hours at my ‘real’ job, the family has to sacrifice and do the things that I would do when I’m home,” he says. “So I try hard to carve out any time I can with my kids in any free spot.”

Mickey Brown, owner of Michael Thomas Floral Design Studios in Allentown, also manages to juggle working in community theatre with a busy work schedule. He started acting in community theatre as a kid and got back into it as an adult performing with his son at Pennsylvania Youth Theatre. He recently starred as Mr. MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie at the Allentown JCC but has been focusing more on back-stage work. “As I get older, I certainly can’t dance like I used to and I don’t have opportunities for roles that I got in my twenties,” he explains. “But I was an art major in college so I got into set painting and found that the time behind the stage is just as rewarding as on stage.” As I spoke to him one evening, he was in the midst of painting sets for Doubt: A Parable at Pennsylvania Playhouse.

For Pam Wallace, her love of theatre compelled her to start a troupe in her kitchen. With costumes, props and actors squeezed into her kitchen for rehearsals, Pam’s Crowded Kitchen Players perform roughly four main shows (usually comedies or farce) at McCoole’s Arts and Events Place in Quakertown. Pam runs a video production company and gives her free time, and her kitchen, to fuel her passion for theatre. “It’s a lot of work for free but it’s really satisfying,” she explains. “You get to know a lot of people and form really good relationships.” She says that while new people frequently join the cast, there are quite a few players who have been there for every show. “Working on the show is a release from whatever else is going on in your life,” she says. “There are many times once a play is over, and I have packed up all the props and costumes and I start thinking, when can I starting working on the next one?”

As a parent, I am required to volunteer my time to help with my kid’s shows. At first I was irritated (mostly due to my aforementioned dislike of theatre). But by the third show I was hooked. I love moving props, working the curtain, running the com to give cues to the actors, and my favorite gig, running the music. Each time, I watch in fear as opening night nears and the actors forget their lines, the stage crew fine tunes their roles and the stage lights refuse to work properly, and I think: “This is going to be a disaster!” And then, opening night the play runs flawlessly and the crowd laughs, and applauses. I realize then and there why this hobby is so addictive.
“The energy builds and builds, and by opening night there is a whirlwind of energy that you can’t explain to someone who’s never done it,” says Brown. “You can’t explain the feeling of performing in front of a crowd, you have to experience it. And once you do, even backstage, it’s in your blood.”

That unknown, fickle crowd is what makes every show an exciting (and possibly terrifying) experience for Zukowski. “There’s so much that can go wrong and the mood of each audience is different,” he explains. Which is why a good performance and a good crowd can produce a magical moment – it’s a lucky mix of hard work and a crowd that is simpatico with the actors. “When the audience is smiling as they leave, and people you never met before come to you after the show and tell you how much they needed a laugh and how much they enjoyed the show, that’s what makes it worthwhile,” says Wallace.

For the people I spoke to, community theatre is about fun, escape and most of all, friendships. “It’s a family,” explains Brown. “Sometimes it’s a dysfunctional family, but there’s no question that friendships that you make in theatre last a lifetime.”

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